Easing loss, giving comfort as virus keeps us apart
MANILA, Philippines — Before Palm Sunday, Fr. Jude Isidro Rebaldo, parish priest of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Aklan province, administered a hastily prepared funeral blessing to a 94-year-old patient who had died of COVID-19.
“The dead was given extreme unction on Thursday, died on Friday, and buried on Saturday. No mourners present. No grieving process. All the children were prevented from attending because of the quarantine,” Rebaldo said.
Not only the abruptness of the patient’s death but also the lack of emotional and financial preparation by the family—and the thought that he died alone—make his demise very painful for those left behind.
The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has killed 182 in the Philippines as of Wednesday. While health officials have found 3,870 people positive for the virus, 96 have recovered. The government announced on Tuesday that the four-week Luzon lockdown would be extended to the end of April.
“Unlike the family of a terminally ill person that is prepared for his death, the case of a COVID-19 patient is so sudden. There could be a quick reversal of the family’s fortune if the patient was the breadwinner. Adjustments will come but could take time, depending on a person and his faith,” said Rebaldo, who counsels married couples going through emotional crisis as spiritual director of a Catholic charismatic community based in Kalibo, Aklan.
A lawyer and part-time professor at Aklan State University, Rebaldo has also written books, including “Scarification: The Art of Turning Simple Memories into Purposeful Moments” (2007). He remains in touch with Catholics undergoing crisis despite the quarantine.
When talking to relatives of COVID-19 patients, he does not tell them that the sickness was God’s will. “I tell them this is the time for us to show that our faith is greater than our fear. There are things that happen in life that we have no answers to,” he said.
‘Pray a lot’
In separate phone interviews, Rebaldo and Msgr. Manuel Gabriel, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ basic ecclesial community committee, referred to the Gospel account of the crucified Jesus crying out to God the Father, asking why he had been forsaken.
“Not even God the Father spared His Son from suffering and death. This is a journey of our faith and we do not get our consolation immediately,” Rebaldo said, adding:
“But we have to pray even if we don’t understand. Pray a lot rather than analyze what is going on, why it happened. Pray even when you are angry. You cannot allow a situation when even you [become sick or compromised], because what about those who still need you?”
Gabriel noted that God did not answer Jesus then, just as those suffering now were also “faced with a miserable situation” with no apparent answer.
He recalled Pope Francis’ visit to Manila in 2015 when he met with street children during a gathering of students on the University of Santo Tomas campus. Glyzelle Iris Palomar, 12, broke into tears while reading a prepared statement where she asked the Pope why God was allowing bad things to happen to children, like prostitution, drug addiction and abandonment.
“There is no answer,” the Pope said as he consoled the child. He also said at that time: “Certain realities in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed by tears… If you don’t learn how to cry, you cannot be a good Christian.”
Said Gabriel: “Everybody suffers at this time.” He added that the Pope delivered a similar message to the survivors of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” when he visited Palo, Leyte.
Gabriel said there were cases when relatives of a COVID-19 patient could prepare for the worst.
“My advice to the family is to not focus on themselves but, rather, on the patient, and offer everything for him and the privacy he needs. While you can only talk to doctors, the most important is spiritual communion with the patient. Imagine you are in a room taking care of him. Impart a spiritual message. But do not mix your issues with his issues. No personal issues, just accompany him spiritually at the moment, graciously and gracefully. Lay your hands on him and pray.”
Friends and those offering support are usually hindered by restrictions due to the government-imposed quarantine. But when faced with someone who has become desperate, Gabriel said: “I would perhaps hold his hand. … Express it: ‘I’m here for you whatever the cost.’ He might accept or reject it. But he knows I am with him and still extend my hand and say, ‘Hold on.’ People can become so desperate and looking for a hand to reach out to.”
Clinical psychologist Lourdes “Honey” Carandang said friends and relatives could “connect emotionally and spiritually” to the bereaved through messages of support and rituals like regular prayer times.
“Grieving is a process; it helps one adapt to a loss,” she said. “That’s why a wake is helpful and comforting in a way because it’s not just a ritual. People come and see each other. Telling stories is part of the healing, and this ritual of mourning is very important in our healing process here in the Philippines.”
Carandang, awarded National Social Scientist in 1995 by the Philippine Social Science Council, said the quarantine had made the mourning process more agonizing for those who lost loved ones to COVID-19 because “they are hurting alone and are not accompanied physically.”
“Loved ones left behind still need to connect with other people. Emotionally, we can still connect to them by phone, social media and apps like Viber,” she said.
The founder of Mindfulness, Love and Compassion Institute for Psychosocial Services Inc., Carandang said those wanting to express support could help hold rituals using technology: “Even if people are apart, one can put an altar with a picture of the person who died and make a way to still have a ritual of mourning. So people can be together, even if not physically. Contact everyone by phone and connect with each other the best way you can.”
She said these connections could also be an opportunity for people to reinforce their spiritual belief, “whether you call on Jesus, Allah, Buddha… Whatever religion, call on the Spirit, call on God into your presence and spiritually know that the whole family is not alone. It would be a deeper connection.”
“Whatever faith or denomination, we believe in something that is bigger than ourselves, something wiser and more powerful than we are,” she said. “I think we need to believe that. COVID-19 shows us we are not the most powerful beings on earth. When we accept our lack of power or powerlessness, we surrender to a higher power and start being at peace with the loss that is intense.”
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